Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. He Said, She Said

 

As a child between about the ages of 6 and 12, I had clear career plans. I wanted to be an author.

It’s easy to see why: my parents were careful to instill a lifelong love of literature in all of their children. Books were better than any toy. Also, I had a lot of imagination. When I was supposed to be sleeping, I acted out nearly full casts of characters with my own storylines as a game I played with my sister.

I wanted very much to be a good writer and so I internalized whatever advice I heard. Somewhere, probably from a teacher, I got the impression that said was off limits. It would make one’s writing repetitive and uninteresting. So, I used everything but. I used exclaimed, inquired, queriedwondered, mentioned, noted, replied, etc. Then when I was about 12 or 13 and going through my “read all the famous books even if you don’t actually enjoy them” phase, I started paying attention and realized that good writers really don’t mix up their dialogue tags much at all. Said is standard. An occasional asked will appear, but even for questions, it is typical to find said. Oh.

This is easily explained. You don’t need to use a bunch of exciting speech verbs in order to write engaging dialogue. You can skip that by mixing up your dialogue with descriptions, and you can even leave off the tags a lot of the time by simply indenting for the next line in the conversation.

It is generally a good idea to learn the rules of your artistic trade before stomping on whichever ones you can and making your millions. But avoid internalizing rules that make no sense in the first place.

There are 19 comments.

  1. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Coolidge

    I Shot The Serif: But avoid internalizing rules that make no sense in the first place. 

    Right you are, Serif! Maybe “Trust, but verify.” works here, too?

    • #1
    • May 6, 2018, at 7:35 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  2. Clavius Thatcher

    I Shot The Serif: It is generally a good idea to learn the rules of your artistic trade before stomping on whichever ones you can and making your millions. But avoid internalizing rules that make no sense in the first place. 

    True for any trade. There are so many things once learns from those who have gone before, and there are great opportunities for breaking the rules going forweard.

    • #2
    • May 6, 2018, at 8:11 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  3. JoelB Member

    A co-worker once pointed out that in our office meeting minutes nobody ever “said” anything.

    • #3
    • May 6, 2018, at 8:27 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  4. Saint Augustine Member

    I Shot The Serif: You don’t need to use a bunch of exciting speech verbs in order to write engaging dialogue.

    Indeed. Presumably the most exciting thing would be the dialogue and the characters, not the synonyms of “said.”

    Now if only I knew how to write exciting dialogue!

    • #4
    • May 7, 2018, at 12:32 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. Arahant Member

    I have read the advice of several famous writers who had said to stick to said, and I agree. On the other hand, it can also get boring in a long back-and-forth conversation. A lot of times rather than even outright stating that something is said, I include an associated action within the dialog:

    • “Quite right,” he nodded, “I used to do the same when I was a younger man.”
    • John sighed, “It has been a very long time.”
    • “Are you sure?” Frederick raised an eyebrow, “It seems very wrong to me.”
    • Herman shrugged, “Well, if that’s the way you want it…”
    • Lefty chuckled, “Do you really think she’s happy with you?”
    • Balthasar looked around and spotted a magazine on his desk, “How is Fey Moon going?”

    None of them are explicitly saying or asking, and certainly not enthusing or exclaiming or inquiring. But when my characters do not have other gestures or expressions thrown into the conversation, they do either say or ask. Keep it simple.


    This conversation is an entry in our Group Writing Series under May’s theme of The Power of Words. There are still thirteen openings on our schedule. If you have had a stimulating, satisfying, edifying, or even terrifying encounter with words in your life, perhaps you would like to tell us about it? Go sign up right here.

    • #5
    • May 7, 2018, at 12:45 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  6. Seawriter Member

    Elmore Leonard’s 10 tricks for good writing:

    1. Never open a book with weather.
    2. Avoid prologues.
    3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
    4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
    5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
    6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
    7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
    10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    See rules 3 and 4.

    • #6
    • May 7, 2018, at 3:36 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  7. MarciN Member

    “Said” seems to disappear, which is exactly what writers want. :-)

    • #7
    • May 7, 2018, at 3:46 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  8. MarciN Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    I Shot The Serif: You don’t need to use a bunch of exciting speech verbs in order to write engaging dialogue.

    Indeed. Presumably the most exciting thing would be the dialogue and the characters, not the synonyms of “said.”

    Now if only I knew how to write exciting dialogue!

    Take a clip from the Trump threads on Ricochet! 

    That would actually be a fun publishing project. :-)

    • #8
    • May 7, 2018, at 3:48 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  9. Arahant Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Elmore Leonard’s 10 tricks for good writing:

    And, of course, all of these can be broken, but an experienced writer is more likely to get away with it than a neophyte.

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

    I allow them if something is on fire or if there is a character who exclaims everything.

    He looked down the street to see his mother’s house on fire.

    “Everyone out and to the bucket line. A house down the street is on fire!” He stuck his head into the library where his grandsons were studying, “GranGran’s house is on fire. Let’s move!”

    • #9
    • May 7, 2018, at 4:56 AM PST
    • 1 like
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

    I guess you guys will have to throw me out!

    • #10
    • May 7, 2018, at 5:58 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  11. Front Seat Cat Member

    What were your favorite children’s books?

    • #11
    • May 7, 2018, at 6:07 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  12. MarciN Member

    Emphasis devices–italics, boldface, exclamation marks, and even cap-and-lowercase–interrupt the reader’s train of thought, which is why they should be used sparingly. And after a while, too much emphasis can be quite irritating (as it is in Catcher in the Rye). The reader will either tune it out or become frustrated and close up the book.

    • #12
    • May 7, 2018, at 6:12 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  13. Seawriter Member

    MarciN (View Comment):
    The reader will either tune it out or become frustrated and close up the book

    I vote close up the book.

    • #13
    • May 7, 2018, at 6:32 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  14. I Shot The Serif Member
    I Shot The Serif Post author

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    What were your favorite children’s books?

    I really liked the Little House books. That was one of the old classics Dad used to read to us. Until we were old enough that we decided we just wanted to read to ourselves from then on, every night before bedtime, my father would read aloud a chapter or two. My Friend Flicka, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, everything.

    In terms of picture books, two that stand out in my memory are Officer Buckle and Gloria and Ten Minutes to Bedtime, both written and illustrated by Peggy Rathmann. They are delightful. Buy them for any small children in your life.

    • #14
    • May 7, 2018, at 7:53 AM PST
    • 1 like
  15. Seawriter Member

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    What were your favorite children’s books?

    Mine was The Phantom Tollbooth. I identified with Milo. Anyone else read it?

    • #15
    • May 7, 2018, at 8:00 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  16. Clavius Thatcher

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    What were your favorite children’s books?

    Mine was The Phantom Tollbooth. I identified with Milo. Anyone else read it?

    I read it at least three times as a child. Great book. Jumping to Conclusions always sticks with me.

    • #16
    • May 7, 2018, at 12:26 PM PST
    • Like
  17. Stad Thatcher

    I Shot The Serif: I wanted very much to be a good writer and so I internalized whatever advice I heard. Somewhere, probably from a teacher, I got the impression that said was off limits. It would make one’s writing repetitive and uninteresting. So, I used everything but. I used exclaimed, inquired, queriedwondered, mentioned, noted, replied, etc. Then when I was about 12 or 13 and going through my “read all the famous books even if you don’t actually enjoy them” phase, I started paying attention and realized that good writers really don’t mix up their dialogue tags much at all. Said is standard. An occasional asked will appear, but even for questions, it is typical to find said. Oh.

    Rule #3 of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”

    I break many of his ten rules, and this is one of them. I use: said, replied, added, continued, screeched, screamed, yelled, cooed, purred . . . there may be a few others. However, I do use “said” most of the time. I see his point, I just don’t accept the “never” part of his rule.

    • #17
    • May 8, 2018, at 7:43 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. Postmodern Hoplite Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Mine was The Phantom Tollbooth. I identified with Milo. Anyone else read it?

    Yup. Me, too!

    (Oops! I just used an exclamation mark…oh, DARN, I did it again!..)

    • #18
    • May 8, 2018, at 8:57 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  19. AUMom Member

    Expert advice is necessary. You have to know the rules before you break the rules. 

    Harry Potter broke nearly all those rules and yet were great books. 

    If we all followed the rules exactly, we would have the same voice. How incredibly boring. 

    • #19
    • May 9, 2018, at 5:03 AM PST
    • 3 likes